Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Feminist Criticism

Foreword

Literary Critical Theories 101 series intends to concentrate on how literary analysis represents itself through five different critical approaches by portraying the basic principles of the theory with both earlier and current versions of them as all define themselves against earlier versions of each. The approaches will be exemplified by different literary works for readers to comprehend how analysis from different lenses highlights the different aspects.


Literary Critical Theories 101 is divided into six chapters:

  1. Literary Critical Theories 101: Introduction to Literary Critical Theories

  2. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Psychoanalytic Criticism

  3. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Feminist Criticism

  4. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Deconstructive Criticism

  5. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of Post-Colonial Criticism

  6. Literary Critical Theories 101: Analysis of New Criticism


Analysis of Feminist Criticism


Feminist criticism today is the product of the women’s movement of the 1960s. It examined the social, economic, psychological, and political oppression of women by objecting to the habit of seeing the male experience as ‘the standard.’ This standardization ignored women’s experiences and made people blind to capturing women’s points of view. Since feminist issues range widely across social, psychological, cultural, and political categories, feminist literary criticism is wide-ranging as well. However, the supreme goal of feminist literary theory is to enrich the understanding of women’s experiences and elevate women’s value in the world. The analysis of feminist criticism will cover the traditional gender roles and multicultural feminism to analyze Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) under the lens of feminist criticism.

Protesters against the veil, protected by young men, march in central Tehran during demonstrations for women's rights on March 10, 1979.

Gender Roles

Patriarchy encourages the belief that women are inferior to men, while a patriarchal woman is a woman who has internalized the values and norms of patriarchy. It continuously undermines women’s assertiveness and self-confidence, then uses the absence of these qualities as proof that women are naturally self-effacing and submissive. Traditional gender roles regard men as strong, protective, and rational; on the contrary, women as nurturing, weak, and submissive. Even though feminists do not deny the biological differences between sexes, they do not agree that these physical differences such as size, shape, and body chemistry make men naturally superior to women. Therefore, feminists differentiate the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender.’ Sex refers to the biological form as male or female, but gender refers to the cultural programming as masculine or feminine, which is called social constructionism.

Traditional gender roles are also destructive for men. For example, failure to provide sufficient economic support for one’s family is believed to be the most humiliating thing a man can experience, as he failed at his biological role of being a provider. However, even when the failure is labeled on men, everything concerning men hints at something about women. Behaviors forbidden to men, are considered womanish or beneath the dignity of manhood. It highlights that the most devastating attack for a man is to be compared to a woman. Even though traditional gender roles work for both sexes, they always point out the ’weakness’ of women. Hence, the concepts of patriarchy and gender roles are the central theme in feminist criticism theory.

From the article titled 'Feminism' by Elinor Burkett.

The feminist theory draws elements from Marxist, psychoanalytic, and also other critical theories since they concern issues relevant to women’s experiences. For example, psychoanalysis can be used as a tool to understand the psychological effects of patriarchal ideology. The psychoanalytic reading is made on Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper in the previous article, and the protagonist Jane deals with hysteria because she is stuck between the Imaginary and Symbolic Order theories of Lacan. The reason behind her hysteria seizures can be analyzed through feminist lenses, and we come to a conclusion that the core reason is her oppressed identity by patriarchy. Therefore, feminist theory constantly incorporates new ideas from other critical approaches.


Multicultural Feminism

Louise Weiss along with other suffragettes in 1935.

The experiences of a white woman compared to the experiences of a black woman under the oppression of patriarchy are quite different even though all women are subjected to patriarchal oppression, as women’s problems, needs, and desires are shaped by their socioeconomic class, race, educational experience, sexual orientation, nationality, and religion. Patriarchy operates differently in different settings. It is not possible to isolate women’s experiences of the patriarchy from their experiences of racism; poor women’s experiences of the patriarchy from their experiences of classism; or lesbians’ experience of patriarchy from their experiences of heterosexism. As these different categories easily overlap, it is common for feminist literary critics to consider themselves hybrids like Marxist-feminist.


Feminist Literary Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford (1902).

As written by one of the important feminist writers, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is accepted as one of the first texts of feminist theory. Woolf categorizes the relationship between women and fictional letters into three dimensions: women and their looking; women and literature; women and writings about them. She raises her voice on job opportunities, education, privacy, economic freedom, and respect in the community for women. She highlights the importance of women’s freedom to be able to choose to be a writer as a profession, having a permanent income, and a room of her own with privacy; however, patriarchal community, traditional gender roles, the inequalities in education, or the history blocking the presence of women are the main pillars that hinder women's dreams to pursue.


Woolf poses two questions to the reader: why is writing more challenging for women than it is for men? What would happen if Shakespeare had a skilled sister? She has a very simple answer to her first question: women in a male-dominated society cannot get a proper education and they are limited by their family life. For her second question, Woolf suggests the scenario that Shakespeare’s sister would not be sent to school, or pursue her dreams and in the end, she would commit suicide. It proves that a woman as talented as Shakespeare has no way to achieve success since women are treated quite differently.


Woolf was photographed by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy.

Woolf recognizes the differences between sexes and welcomes them; yet, the problem arises from the fact that women have not been permitted to develop their own identity as they do not have their own money, privacy, or time. Women should overcome all difficulties and build something beyond nothingness, she claims. Not only are the issues Woolf addresses based on gender, but also on class. She is aware of the effect of class on writing fiction, especially since women from the lower class have no chance to write. Woolf stresses that there are several obstacles for women to gain a proper education, money, or privacy, and she resists patriarchy and defends equality for men and women.

From the article titled 'A Brief Summary Of The Second Wave Of Feminism' by Tara Anand (2018)

Consequently, feminist criticism theory studies how patriarchy and traditional gender roles impact women’s experiences on several grounds. Social, economic, political, and psychoanalytic grounds are all intertwined with each other in terms of the habit of seeing women’s identifications bound to the references to men. With the criticism questions mentioned above, one can analyze a literary text under the lens of feminist critical theory to understand the differences in representations of men and women. As the analysis of Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own is given, feminist theory’s ultimate goal is to highlight how patriarchy and gender roles identify women and make them understand that women should fight for their equal rights such as being a writer.



Bibliographical References

Devaney, M. J., & Shaw, P. (1989). Feminist Literary Criticism. The American Scholar, 58(2), 317–319. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41211682 Filipowicz, H. (2014). “Am I That Name?” Feminism, Feminist Criticism, and Gender Studies. The Polish Review, 59(1), 3–15. https://doi.org/10.5406/polishreview.59.1.0003 Gonick, M., Shannon, L., & Allison, A. (2006). A Room of Our Own: Girls, Feminism, and Schooling. Feminist Teacher, 16(2), 138–149. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40545988 Lemaster, T. (2012). “Girl with a pen”: Girls’ Studies and Third-Wave Feminism in “A Room of One’s Own” and “Professions for Women.” Feminist Formations, 24(2), 77–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23275105 Rhode, D. L. (1990). Feminist Critical Theories. Stanford Law Review, 42(3), 617–638. https://doi.org/10.2307/1228887 Showalter, E. (1984). Women’s Time, Women’s Space: Writing the History of Feminist Criticism. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 3(1/2), 29–43. https://doi.org/10.2307/463823



Visual Sources

Beresford, G. C. (1902). Portrait of Virginia Woolf. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Charles_Beresford_-_Virginia_Woolf_in_1902.jpg Britannica.com. (n.d.). Feminism by Elinor Burkett. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/explore/100women/rise-of-feminism Feminisminindia.com. (2018). A Brief Summary of the Second Wave Of Feminism by Tara Anand. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://feminisminindia.com/2018/04/25/summary-second-wave-of-feminism/ Foreignpolicy.com. (2019). The Flame of Feminism Is Alive in Iran by Roya Hakakian. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/03/07/the-flame-of-feminism-is-alive-in-iran-international-womens-day/


Keystone. (1935). Louise Weiss along with other suffragettes. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louise_Weiss.jpg


NewYorker.com. (2020). Photograph by Pictorial Press Ltd from the article Holding Woolf in Your Hands. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/holding-virginia-woolf-in-your-hands


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Melis Güven

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